How I became a feminist – the college years!

So, here is part two of my “how I became a feminist” series (check out part one here). Ironically, I’m going to skip my actual high school years. While there was a lot in there that contributed to how I think about feminist stuff, it doesn’t really fit that neatly into a story.

SO, we will jump over that to the college years! Some quick background: I didn’t go into college intending to study women’s & gender studies. I don’t even remember if I knew such a thing existed. I started as an English major minoring in psychology. However, my first few English classes didn’t really inspire me, and while psychology was super-interesting, I just couldn’t wrap my head around statistics. Then, in the second semester of my second year, I took a class on the psychology of women, and I was hooked. After a few more WGST courses, I decided to add a minor in women’s & gender studies, and soon after that decided to turn that minor into a major. I wrapped up my English requirements as quickly as I could, and threw myself headfirst into women’s & gender studies.

I took courses on gay and lesbian literature, on gender and food, and on feminism and popular culture, getting more and more passionate about these issues. After September 11, I took a course on women in Afghanistan, and became more involved in politics, regularly contacting my elected representatives about various environmental, international, and LGBT issues, and participating in anti-war protests, teach-ins, and die-ins.

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That’s me in the lower left. Somehow a picture of me at an anti-war teach-in became a stock photo? Who knows.

However, it was during my final year in college that I realized how exciting activism could really be, and how satisfying it can feel to be able to make a difference in people’s lives, however small.

It started when my friend Emily (Hi Emily!) approached me, asking if I’d be interested in helping to start an organization that would focus on helping women develop a healthier and more positive body image.  I enthusiastically agreed, and thus the Bod Squad was born. We worked tirelessly throughout that year to come up with creative, interesting events that would help to raise awareness about eating disorder and body image issues, and to give women tools to improve their body image. Throughout February, “love your body” month, we ran these events across campus:

Smash Your Scale: This event was designed as a way for women to physically take out their frustration on an instrument that, for many, has the power to ruin their day. We provided a baseball bat and safety goggles, and encouraged women to bring their bathroom scales to smash. It was unbelievable how cathartic and liberating it felt to take a baseball bat to a scale; women left the event feeling exhilarated and empowered. We even had a male wrestler take a turn at expressing his frustration about his complicated relationship with food and scales.

A Day Without Dieting: We designed this day as a way to help women gain a better awareness of how they think about food and eating. Through a flier campaign, we encouraged women to spend a day focusing on choosing nutritious, tasty food that they enjoyed eating and listening to their bodies’ cues regarding hunger and fullness, instead of focusing solely on calories and fat content.

I ❤ My Body: Leading up to Valentine’s day, we set up a table in the student center and encouraged women to make a promise to be kinder to themselves and to work to love their bodies. They anonymously wrote their promises on a paper heart, then put the heart in a bag on our table or kept it as a reminder. As a thank-you for participating, we handed out t-shirts that said “I ❤ my body” and asked women to wear them on Valentine’s Day.

Change your clothes, not your size: While there’s nothing terribly innovative about a clothing drive, we billed ours as a chance for women to get rid of the “skinny” outfits that were hiding in the back of their closets instead of holding on to them and feeling bad for not fitting in them.

We also held a media literacy workshop in the women’s center, ran a body image workshop in a gender studies class, supported an on-campus sorority’s eating disorder vigil and sponsored a speaker from the Princeton Medical Center’s eating disorder clinic, in addition to posting fliers with inspirational messages and with eating disorder and body image statistics in the women’s bathrooms around campus.

While these events were really rewarding and exciting, the challenges along the way taught me a lot about activism and organizing.  When you spend most of your time with like-minded people, sometimes the backlash against and misinterpretation of your message can be really unexpected and discouraging.

Some of these misinterpretations were frustrating because they reinforced the very messages we were speaking out against. For instance, the article in the school newspaper about our Day Without Dieting featured a photograph of ice cream and candy, and reported that we were encouraging women to “pig out” and eat lots of junk food on this day. The article reflected the unhealthy relationship a lot of people have with food, where they see restriction or “pigging out” as the only two ways to approach food, and don’t have a concept of “normal” eating.

Even more frustrating were the responses that deliberately ignored the issues we were trying to address for the sake of creating controversy. For example, an editorial in the school paper asked why we only gave the “I ❤ my body” shirts to women and asked why we were “afraid” to let men wear the shirts as well. Sadly, the newspaper’s online archives only extend back to the middle of February 2003 – halfway through “love your body” month of events, so the original editorial isn’t online. However, our (fairly awesome) response to it is available. Another student’s response is also online. (Hi Ryan!)

It was also difficult dealing with some more direct criticism and looking at how messages might be perceived based on factors beyond our control. For instance, I was fairly thin at the time, and several people suggested to me that our “love your body” message might come across as disingenuous coming from someone with a body type that was more conventionally “good”.  This suggestion was pretty upsetting, and made me question my decision to be involved in this activism. Obviously I didn’t quit, but I did spend some time thinking about how my position might affect my own perception of body image issues.

Even though we encountered some backlash and hostility, the clear signs that we were making a difference made it worthwhile. After the “I ❤ my body” event, we looked through the promises that women had anonymously made to themselves. The responses were heartbreaking. Women had promised to spend at least ten minutes a day not worrying about how they looked, to not skip lunch that day, to not weigh themselves every day, or to not throw up after eating “bad” foods. It was impossible not to cry to see the amount of self-criticism that so many women carried around with them. Given that, it was even more inspiring to see how many women wore their “I ❤ my body” shirts on Valentine’s Day.

Most importantly, these experiences made me more open to the ideas of performing activism in the future. I tried to implement some of these techniques in my role as the advisor to the women’s issues club in a high school (which I will probably discuss some time soon).

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8 responses to “How I became a feminist – the college years!

  1. Do you know how much you sound like a stereotypical feminist, the bad stereotype, in your first few paragraphs? Really you majored in women’s studies because numbers are hard and you couldn’t do the trivial statistics needed for a degree is psychology? Phrased this way do you see why people look down on “Women’s Studies” programs?

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    • I didn’t realize that it’s a stereotype that feminists are bad at math – I’ll add it to the list! (Also, I have to imagine that psychologists out there might be insulted by your description of statistics as “trivial”). I was going to mention that one of the reasons I could graduate on time with two majors and a minor without taking any crazy-overbooked semesters (and still have time for all of this fun activism) was because my AP exam scores in calculus and biology let me skip a bunch of general education requirements, but that sounded a bit braggy so I took it out. The point of the article wasn’t how smart I am (seriously, I’m awesome at calculus, but for some reason I just could not do statistics, which was really frustrating), but how I discovered a field of study that I love. I’m sorry if that point wasn’t clear enough for you.

      Also, check out the link to TCNJ’s Women’s and Gender Studies department – I can guarantee nobody is looking down on that program!

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      • There is a pervasive stereotype that women are bad at math. This then leads them to pursue majors like Women’s Studies that have little to no math. You really should have included something about AP calculus. With out that your story supports the stereotype of women are bad at math.

        Compared to Math, Physics, engineering type degrees the math needed for physiology is trivial. This is by comparison, not an absolute.

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      • I’m going to disagree with the idea that I “should have” mentioned my math scores in that context. By adding my ability to do math as a disclaimer, or as a way to show that I’m actually “smart”, I would have been implicitly endorsing the (widely-held) perception that for some reason math and science are more worthy or legitimate than the humanities. You don’t hear people saying that someone “couldn’t handle” English, so went on to study accounting, and I’d argue that that’s just as legitimate an idea. I think it’s worth questioning that perception as much as it is my decision to mention that I had a hard time with statistics.

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      • You live in the world. This world comes with preconceived notions and stereotypes. There is no need to over come the preconceived notion that math is harder than English because there is no such notion to over come. There is the notion that math is harder and picking something non-math is picking the easier option.

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  2. This was extremely inspiring to read, as I am currently a new WGS major at TCNJ after numerous major changes. It is overwhelming, but I am in the process of finding my niche within this major. It definitely has changed my life though, and I could not be more grateful or more excited about it. I can’t wait to continue reading your blog and I am happy that my teacher, Emily to be exact, encouraged us to read it. We are actually going to be skyping you in class today so I can’t wait to hear all of your opinions and advice! Thanks for the inspiration again!

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  3. Pingback: Why I don’t love my body | I was a high-school feminist·

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